I’ve had a couple people ask me this, since I have a lot of good memories of playing Classic, and own a surprising number of the books. (Also, I have some Great Rail Wars miniatures stored away for a rainy painting day.) One of my friends actually got a bit miffed about it, since he’s a huge fan of Classic, and wondered why we didn’t stick with Classic Deadlands since it is such a “simple and elegant” system. Well…
First off, there are a number of positive things I will say about classic—it’s awesome, it’s got a unique charm, it’s my ideal balance of style and substance—but “simple” is not a descriptor that anybody in the world uses to describe the Classic rules. I consider Star Wars d6 a simple system—skill-based dice pools, no special abilities to shop for, no derived stats or rolling on random tables, no need for GM fiat since it has plenty of rules depth. It has its flaws (e.g. character advancement power curve, buckets-of-dice) but when you can make a character in about a minute, without needing to consult any rulebooks, it’s a simple system. Dread is simple, it’s fucking Horror Jenga. Marvel Superheroes is simple (roll dice, consult chart); ICONS is actually more complicated in some ways, but also damn simple, hence why it’s a good pick-up game. Cyberpunk 2020 is relatively simple (d10+stat+skill vs difficulty, ye-haw).
Elegant is in the eye of the beholder. Some people consider THAC0 an elegant system. For what it’s doing—retaining the AD&D decreasing scale of armor class while compacting it into a single line chart and simple math equation—yep, it’s much more elegant than combat matrices. But I don’t consider it “elegant” in the slightest. Some people find HERO elegant, though I consider it too math-intensive and way too crunchy for my tastes. d20 uses an elegant base mechanic (roll one d20, add modifiers) for everything, but becomes UN-elegant through the bloat of modifiers and mechanics it feeds off. My definition of an “elegant” mechanic is one that’s effective and streamlined, something that’s graceful (or has ornate richness on a metagame level) yet also straightforward, easy to use. An elegant RPG is one free of unnecessary subsystems and rules bloat, yet with its own style and flair, and good mechanical synergy.
My first thought was White Wolf’s Storyteller system until I realized I was just thinking of the dice pool/system resolution, not the sheer level of fiddly crunch that goes into my favorite of its game lines (Exalted, Werewolf, Mage), two of which have stupid-high learning curves. (Exalted’s rules fit the “ornate richness” bill, though.) Something like Adventure!—stripped down Storyteller, fast and streamlined—I’d say is ideally elegant. Star Wars d6 is one of the most elegant systems ever devised—and I say this being less of a fan of d6 compared to my friends. CthulhuTech’s Framework is pretty elegant on its own, ignoring the weird tier effect when your party is a dude in a two-story living mech, a dude in a killer mythos symbiote suit, and Bob the guy with a shotgun. I hate to sound like a raving fanboy, but my prime candidate for an “elegant” game is Fate—simple and streamlined, yet with a surprising amount of heft to its crunch, and a lot of versatility. Hence why I keep trying to run a real, full campaign with it. Houses of the Blooded fits the same bill.
Deadlands is a crunchy game with three layers of mechanics (dice, cards, chips), with sub-mechanics on each layer. Heck, most things have their own mechanic to keep track off (knacks are new chip mechanics, relics are a free edge and hindrance, spells use different card draw levels, et al). It’s nowhere near the high-end of crunch on the RPG scale—it’s not D&D, or even old White Wolf, and something like HERO, the Warhammer 40k RPGs, or GURPS make it look downright light—but compared to the games of its era it’s not very simple; in fact, it’s pretty damn complicated. It’s a bit bloated and clunky when you have different mechanics for resolving everything, and that can make it user-unfriendly. (Also, it requires more dice than the average gamer owns.) Also interesting to note that Deadlands creator Shane Lacy Hensley found his own game bogged down in combat, and broke out the Great Rail Wars rules for big battles.
Simple? No. Elegant? Depends on your preferences. I think the system has great depth and complexity, but that’s the exact opposite of simple and elegant. I also say it’s pretty brutal; coincidentally, so is Dresden.
Why Don’t I Use Deadlands Reloaded?
I realize most gamers love Savage Worlds, but its popularity eludes me—I’ve never particularly liked the system. (Yes, I have played in it; three different games, two different GMs, somewhere around five sessions before we all got bored and went to another system.) In fact, I find it pretty lackluster and a clumsy mess, particularly Reloaded. Savage Worlds just feels odd when everyone’s a bog-standard human, and Reloaded made it a lot easier on characters in general (which takes away some of the typical Deadlands flavor) while taking away some of the gnarly style/substance mechanics (poker draws for everyone, neat chip effects) that fans had to kitbash into the system. While most (if not all) of its settings and Plot Point campaigns are brilliant and/or unique, the system’s many eccentricities astound and annoy me. It’s something like an indie-storygame but for D&D players: safe and accessible because it can use miniatures and has tactical rules, but is rules-light enough to be considered a new, weird, unique system.
It’s a cinematic game that uses miniatures (being derived from the Deadlands miniatures game, Great Rail Wars); it has a low standard difficulty (4) yet someone who’s buffed themselves to a godlike d12 fails 33% of the time on that die (and 66% of the time on their Wild Die d6); higher-level combat is toothless until someone penetrates a PC’s armor and they explode into meat chunks; its Plot Point campaigns have the bad habit of ruining all the world’s secrets, and even screwing over world-specific races; the early books were dominated by the equivalent of the Microsoft Paperclip, Smilin’ Jack, with his overblown tough-guy talk.
It’s a tactical game where the tactics don’t matter. It’s a cinematic game where it’s a challenge to be cinematic. It’s a generic toolkit, which often leaves things flavorless. It takes parts of Deadlands (most of the rules; die types, card initiative, etc.), Star Wars d6 (wild die and feel), TORG (action deck, health system, test/trick/taunt), and D&D (the tactical parts), throws them into a pot, and Savage Worlds is the result; hence why the mechanics can be disjointed and over- or under-developed. (Why does it use cards? Because Deadlands used them for initiative and TORG had its action deck, and both of those were cool, so we’re using them too. That makes us cool, right?)
For having “Fast, Fun, Furious” as its tagline, it may be speedy and efficient, but I didn’t have a ton of fun, and “furious” seems a bit out-of-place. Unless that referred to Smilin’ Jack.
To me, it straddles the fence precisely at the awkward middleweight position in the gaming hierarchy, enough so that it becomes a hindrance: why not move up a step and play a real game with more developed and crunchier mechanics (e.g. Classic Deadlands, 7th Sea, White Wolf, TORG), or move down a notch and play something more versatile and rewarding of cinematic action (e.g. Fate)? To me, Fate does everything Savage Worlds is supposed to do and (for me) didn’t: you can have fast, furious combat (even on the mass scale); it doesn’t need any more bookkeeping or GM prep; it’s a generic toolkit game which easily becomes flavorful and connected to a setting/campaign; and play is a lot more fun (because of its unpredictability and versatility) while being very rewarding as well.